Skin Acts

Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer

Skin Acts

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 55 illustrations Published: August 2014

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Theater and Performance

In Skin Acts, Michelle Ann Stephens explores the work of four iconic twentieth-century black male performers—Bert Williams, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, and Bob Marley—to reveal how racial and sexual difference is both marked by and experienced in the skin. She situates each figure within his cultural moment, examining his performance in the context of contemporary race relations and visual regimes. Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis and performance theory, Stephens contends that while black skin is subject to what Frantz Fanon called the epidermalizing and hardening effects of the gaze, it is in the flesh that other—intersubjective, pre-discursive, and sensuous—forms of knowing take place between artist and audience. Analyzing a wide range of visual, musical, and textual sources, Stephens shows that black subjectivity and performativity are structured by the tension between skin and flesh, sight and touch, difference and sameness.


“In Skin Acts, Michelle Ann Stephens provides a valuable contribution to the study of race and representation by offering a thorough account of the relationship between black skin and white gaze and the production of difference in twentieth-century US popular culture.” — Brandi T. Summers, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

"Skin Acts is challenging but marked by intellectual bliss. Highly recommended." — G. R. Butters, Jr., Choice

"Skin Acts provides highly productive discourses for anyone interested in black cultural studies, performance theory, and/or racialization." — Lia T. Bascomb, Contemporary Theatre Review

"The book is well written and rich with analytic detail regarding each of the four case studies, particularly through the use of visual materials. Skin Acts is a valuable contribution to the literatures of race, psychoanalytic theory, masculinity, and performance." — Devon R. Goss, Men and Masculinities

"Skin Acts is an admirable and learned study." — Jared Sexton, philoSOPHIA

"[T]his is an important book that should be read by a transdisciplinary audience interested in the intersection of racism, gender, performance, and the politics of visual culture." — Floyd W. Hayes III, Spectrum

"Skin Acts is an ambitious and well-researched study that anyone interested in the intersections of psychoanalysis and critical race theory should read." — Rocío Pichon-Rivière, e-misférica

"By pushing the reader to think about how multiple sites of self-definition and societal gaze create the racial, bodily landscape of the black masculine performer, Stephens makes an important contribution to black masculinity studies and performance studies, and articulates the importance for the field of skin studies. Stephens’s interdisciplinary project effortlessly blends performance theory, psychoanalysis, and historical theories of race, corporeality, and physiognomy to produce an accessible framework for understanding black masculine performers in the twentieth century." — Brandon J. Manning, Callaloo

"Michele Ann Stephens adds an important layer to our understanding of black masculinity in the U.S. and the Caribbean during the twentieth century. This is a compelling, thorough, and cohesive treatment of the complex intersections of black masculinity, performance, and psychoanalysis. Well-written and clearly argued, Skin Acts will make an indispensable contribution."
— Alexander G. Weheliye, author of Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human

"Michelle Ann Stephens has written a book that anyone interested in race and psychoanalysis will want to pay attention to, and one that even those who do not consider themselves interested in the topic will have to pay attention to. She has taken the most immediate and seemingly obvious site of racialization, the skin, and given it a revelatory new genealogy. She sets the standard for all future engagements with what Frantz Fanon termed 'epidermalization.' Through arresting readings of modern and contemporary art and performance, Stephens unfolds the racializing and engendering of skin within modernity, and makes a powerful argument for reading it through the lens of feminist, antiracist, and haptic visuality."
— Tavia Nyong'o, author of The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michelle Ann Stephens is Associate Professor of English and Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is the author of Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface vii

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction. Fleshing Out the Act 1

1. Seeing Faces, Hearing Signs 31

2. Bodylines, Borderlines, Color Lines 71

3. The Problem of Color 111

4. In the Flesh, Living Sound 153

Conclusion. Defacing Race, Rethinking the Skin 191

Notes 205

Bibliography 259

Index 273
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